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Biden's office of Gun Violence and Prevention says it's driven to make a difference

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Later this month, Vice President Kamala Harris is set to visit the high school building in Parkland, Fla., where 14 students and three adults died in 2018. She'll walk down the halls of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High with victims' family members before officials tear down the site of one of the country's deadliest ever school shootings. The vice president oversees the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention. The two deputy directors of that office sat down with our colleague Michel Martin, to talk about the No. 1 killer of children in the U.S., an epidemic that has seen more than 270 children and teens killed by a firearm so far this year. At the White House, Gregory Jackson Jr. and Rob Wilcox started by sharing their experiences and what led them to this work.

ROB WILCOX: We're a nation of survivors, a nation living with trauma. And mine happened 22 years ago when I was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., but it was a 19-year-old cousin across the country volunteering at a local mental health hospital when someone who was in crisis - whose brother knew he was in crisis, knew he had guns and tried to do something but couldn't 'cause there was no tools - took those guns into that hospital, and he killed Laura, and she died at 19. And he killed others in that small town. And I remember that funeral like it was yesterday. I could see my whole family and honestly a lot of that community packed into this gymnasium, the sunlight streaming in through the windows. I saw every single adult in my family crying, and I thought to myself, this is something I have to do something about.

GREGORY JACKSON JR: For me, my journey started April 21 of 2013, when I was walking home with my cousins from a wedding celebration and literally got caught in the middle of a crossfire. The bullet hit two arteries, and I found myself hiding behind a concrete column, bleeding to death. And when I got to the hospital - I'll never forget - as opposed to being, you know, rushed into surgery, I was rushed into an interrogation room, and I was questioned about my innocence and my involvement in the conflict while I was in and out of consciousness. And my surgeon eventually shared, I only had about 26 minutes to live due to blood loss. And so I fought through that surgery and then five additional surgeries and six months of recovery. That was real for me to feel that close brush with death. But so many young folks in this country don't make it, and there's not enough people out there fighting for change.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So what does change look like? For the White House, it's an array of things, small things and big things, but most of all trying to move more quickly.

WILCOX: This office can expedite the laws that have been passed. So, for example, we know that the law that was passed in 2022, the first gun safety law in 30 years, put money in to hire school counselors. It's a billion dollars that will allow us to hire 14,000 school counselors, the largest investment in youth mental health in history. And we're making sure that's getting to the schools and the high-need communities that need it so that we can be bringing people to the classroom to help youth both process this trauma and also make sure they don't pick up a gun in the first place.

MARTIN: I know that the administration has presented a lot of kind of model legislation, saying, this is what we suggest that states and localities can do, but do you have any enforcement power?

WILCOX: There's an enhanced - new enhanced background check that's focused on 18, 19 and 20-year-olds who were buying AR-15s, rifles and shotguns at gun stores. Eighteen, 19, 20-year-olds have committed the most horrific mass shootings in this country. And now, instead of just going into a computer database and doing a background check, we're reaching out to state and local officials to get information, and that's increased denials by 25%.

MARTIN: There are already more guns in the United States than there are people in the United States. So is part of the logic of what you're doing here an acknowledgment that you can't get guns out of people's hands?

WILCOX: So this administration supports the Second Amendment rights of Americans, and this office is staffed by two people who are both survivors and come from gun-owning families. But what we know is that we have to raise awareness about the guns that are used in violence and what can be done to securely store them. We got to make those storage devices accessible, which is why we instituted a new regulation to make sure that gun dealers supply storage devices that are compatible with every gun in their inventory, and we've got to have accountability. The president has been clear that we need Congress to pass a law that holds individuals accountable if they don't secure their firearm and it's used in violence.

MARTIN: But the violence has already occurred. I mean, that's like suing somebody after the plane has crashed.

WILCOX: But that's why it's three parts that's based on awareness and accessibility, which are preventative and intervention measures, but then also accountability. We believe that if we raise awareness, we increase accessibility and people know there will be accountability, that we can make a difference to reduce teen suicide, unintentional shootings and school shootings.

MARTIN: It is an election year. Is there a way in which something you've started here endures, even if this administration doesn't continue?

WILCOX: We believe this office will stand on its own merit. And it's really hard being the first, but now no one else has to go through that. And so I think that this idea is going to be proven in the way that we help communities and save lives. And going forward, I think the American people will see that there is incredible value to take an all-of-government approach to address every aspect of this crisis.

JACKSON: You know, unfortunately, lives can't be replaced, and our work is already saving lives. We've met mayors who have shared how they've seen a 30% reduction in violence in their city and homicides, and they leveraged resources that we were able to unlock. This past year, I actually lost one of my mentees, DeMarcos (ph). And nothing hurt more than watching his casket roll away out of the funeral home. But what inspired me...

MARTIN: Was he shot?

JACKSON: He was shot and killed, yeah, on his front porch. But one of his friends actually came to the White House to visit us. He's fighting for change in his community. And I think not only are we saving lives, the fight that we're putting up - not being afraid to try new things, to take on the narrative and the pundits and the trolls - but it's also inspiring the next generation that their lives matter and that fighting for their lives and for their friends and for their communities is worth the battle and is worth the effort.

MARTIN: Greg Jackson Jr., Rob Wilcox, thanks so much for talking to us.

WILCOX: Thank you.

JACKSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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